Seen and Not Heard – Until Strictly Come Dancing put the Spotlight on Signing!

Rose Ayling-Ellis’ recent win of Strictly Come Dancing has inspired deaf young people around the UK, as well as sparking an interest in learning Sign Language among hearing fans. In this post, author of Making Sense in Sign, Jenny Froude, welcomes these developments and the positive impact they will have on her own family, as well as a generation of deaf young people. 

Before the Strictly Come Dancing final came the Christmas card from an old schoolfriend whom I seldom see.

“I have thought of you all in the last few weeks. I’ve been glued to Strictly Come Dancing and the beautiful and talented Rose and her partner. They have highlighted the Deaf community. Astounding performance. I’m sure they will win – they certainly deserve to. You too, deserve a great deal of credit for the support and encouragement you have given your son, his wife and family. You must be so proud of all their amazing achievements”.

So, yes, Rose Ayling-Ellis, the darling not only of the dancing world but also the Deaf community, has charmed the team and the viewers and made Sign Language suddenly something to be embraced – watched, learned and, hopefully, used by hearing people as well as by today’s new young deaf generation.

Signing should, like charity, begin at home! My book Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child (2003) which was started when our son Tom was 3 years old and completed when he reached 21, celebrates the infant, deafened by bacterial meningitis at 5 months, who grew up in a hearing family. In responding to USA’s Linguist List deciding that it was only “offering one family’s story so that other parents, teachers, and students can experience one view as they investigate still others on the road to making informed decisions concerning the individual children in their care” a writer of one cover endorsement wrote that his experience had been that “more effective insights are often gained from a personal rather than a text book approach”. And a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) described me in the BATOD (British Association of Teachers of the Deaf) magazine as “the parent you wish you could introduce to the parents of your pupils”.

Despite the time lapse, I like to hope that sentiment is still relevant. Huge developments in technology have taken place and bilateral cochlear implants are available for babies now, but human communication should still take priority, for practical, familial and mental health reasons. Another ToD wrote that, “Jenny describes herself as a ‘lay’ person but she is the expert really; widely informed, from her own experiences but with sound and sensitive appreciation of the D/deaf issues”.

Tom and Alfie – “Where’s my top?”

During the pandemic many hitherto unknown issues have come to the fore. The need for wearing masks has been one of the worst. Following an article in their Magazine on the joys of flirting while wearing a mask, I quickly wrote to The Observer pointing out that eyes alone cannot convey all that a profoundly deaf person needs to know. From a possibly steamy visor, Tom’s wife labouring in summer 2020 would be unable to discern congratulations or concern from just the eyes of an obstetrician, midwife or mother, wearing masks and full PPE, as she gave birth to their third child. I hated the thought of her floundering in such circumstances, when masks made lipreading impossible and words obviously unintelligible. As it happened, after a slow start Alfie proved as anxious as his siblings to arrive speedily and be placed into the arms of his father who had kindly been permitted to attend the third stage. And this baby has been as calm and contented as his adoring sister and brother ever since, enjoying their company during their long lockdown home schooling of his first, somewhat solitary, summer.

Faced first with furlough and then redundancy from the store in which he had worked since it opened 11 years ago when it became one of a number of branch closures, Tom has encountered little in the way of Deaf Awareness. A Job Centre seemed fazed by his needs and he had to rely on his mother-in-law to make contact by phone fortnightly with them whilst he stood beside her and she relayed information. Hardly empowering for a deaf man well able to make contact by email or text, both of which the centre denied him. Job interviews he set up himself took place on Zoom but had to be delayed until an interpreter was available and, having secured employment, there was a delay with Access to Work over which he had no control. A situation unlikely to endear a deaf person seeking work to a possible employer! Thankfully his new colleagues are keen to learn some signs!

While hoping the great British public will not expect all deaf people to dance divinely, any more than they expect them to be as musical as Dame Evelyn Glennie, people in the spotlight do help others to focus on the condition and possibly some of the problems it can sometimes bring in its wake.

From her obvious ability to lipread and with the benefit of some sound from her hearing aids, plus a beautifully clear voice herself, Rose showed her allegiance to the English language and signed what I know as SSE (Sign Supported English), based on signs from BSL (British Sign Language). BSL is a language recognised in its own right since 2003 in this country and those newcomers signing up to classes as a result of Rose may well be initially bemused by the grammar of this living, visual language which was not evident in her speech.

Jenny with her grandchildren

We want our grandchildren to be proud of their parents’ signing skills and if Strictly has drawn attention to signing there is cause for rejoicing! On Christmas morning Tom sent me a little video of 8 year old Daisy, an angel, and 6 year old Oliver, a king, signing a Christmas song in their village church Nativity the previous evening, alongside many young friends doing the same! Signing in a situation like that adds another dimension to the words and to the whole atmosphere (I had been surprised in one of Rose’s interviews when she said that stage musicals had been unknown to her previously. Sign Language Interpreted Performances (SLIPS) are just magical in the right, professional hands and unbelievably captivating to watch). SOLT (Society of London Theatres) regularly produce a free book listing all such performances, plus Captioned, Audio-described and Relaxed ones.

For their parents to not only see the signs but also read the words on a white screen make such memorable events accessible. Daisy, who was fascinated by her own hands at the age of five months, is now astute enough, without ever having been told to do so, to precis important information at the school gate for her mother, and has done so since the age of five when it seems an observant teacher feared it indicated her own sentence structure might be faulty. Her bilingualism at that tender age was obviously not appreciated as her own conversational speech used perfect English! Both she and her brother read well and he astounded me at the age of five when he insisted on reading the first children’s book written by deaf poet Raymond Antrobus, Can Bears Ski? to me, never having seen it before I gave it to him that day! Both children lipspeak and sign sensitively, often unobtrusively, to their parents.

The newest family member has already, at 18 months, a good repertoire of signs and long been endearingly signing “where’s Mummy?” Sign language, as anyone familiar with baby/toddler Tiny Talk groups,  either as a professional or as a parent/grandparent/carer will testify, “jumpstarts” language, be it for hearing or deaf children.  And if in their teen years ours are loath to sign in public I hope by then Rose’s influence will have permeated and publicised signing to such an extent that more and more people will proudly use it. As CODAs (children of deaf adults) ours will appreciate support and deserve all the praise they should get for their skills, gained at such tender ages from the parents they love.

Little did I dream, 40 odd years ago as I embarked on signs with our one-year-old, that I would be so proud to see Tom’s hearing offspring signing to him and his wife. Babysitting his then tiny daughter some years ago, I showed her my book about him. Engrossed, after information overload she briefly fell asleep on my lap, then suddenly woke up and demanded, “and what happened next?”!

I filled in some details for her but the rest is yet to come. For now, she and her siblings hold the future in their hands, just as Tom holds theirs in his.

Jenny Froude

Jenny’s book Making Sense in Sign is available on our website.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in the following titles:

Understanding Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd

The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages edited by Maartje De Meulder, Joseph J. Murray and Rachel L. McKee

Critical Perspectives on Plurilingualism in Deaf Education edited by Kristin Snoddon and Joanne C. Weber

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